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The Master

Okay—eff Tom Cruise. I got all nostalgic a few months ago after watching “Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol”, and decided it should be okay to like him again. Maybe I just blocked out how much of a weirdo he is. What does this have to do with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”? At least some of you should know by now that “The Master” is being referred to as the “Scientology movie” that’s NOT about Scientology. That should be thought of as code for “we don’t want to get sued by the Church of Scientology”. And I’m smart enough to know that I should say that the film is not an official representation of Scientology, although Anderson has gone as far as calling it “inspired” by the life of Church founder, L. Ron Hubbard. But the fact remains that there have been many reports of “prominent Scientologists” raising issue with this film. And apparently, Anderson screened it for Cruise—old friend that he is, having garnered high praise and an Oscar nomination for Anderson’s 1999 release, “Magnolia”. And the word on the street is that Cruise “had some issues” with the finished product. Apparently, nothing was changed—BUT THEY’RE KOWTOWING TO CRUISE! It’s also been reported that Harvey Weinstein showed it to the other “most famous” Scientologist, John Travolta. So, screw both of those nut jobs and their wacky beliefs. I’ll still watch their movies, but they are a couple of loons. Oh yeah—the movie itself. Well, it’s incredibly daring & provocative, impeccably acted and directed(recent Venice Film Festival awards for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Mr. Anderson), and extremely challenging and cerebral. In other words—your typically fantastic Paul Thomas Anderson work. But it’s NOT about the Church of Scientology. Okay, whatever.               Freddie Quell(Mr. Phoenix—and yes I am reading into that choice of character name…and you should too)is a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He also has a very dangerous alcohol issue, mixing samplings of turpentine, photography chemicals, and even missile fuel into his drinks. The practice is almost certainly causing him brain damage, and his penchant for sharing his booze with unaware acquaintances almost kills a man early in the film. After getting fired from his job as a department store photographer, upon dementedly abusing a customer, Freddie manages to drift his way into the company of one, Lancaster Dodd(Mr. Hoffman). Seems Dodd is the brilliant leader of a burgeoning philosophical movement known as The Cause. And Dodd takes an instant liking to Freddie…as well as his strangely powerful mixed drinks. When The Cause begins to garner more followers and financial backers, Freddie is installed as a sort-of “right hand man” to Dodd. Freddy’s erratic behavior continues to increase, however, as he goes as far as severely beating a man who questions Dodd as to whether or not The Cause should be considered a cult. Dodd’s wife Peggy(a phenomenal Amy Adams)warns Freddie that he must stop drinking if he wishes to remain, while Dodd’s son Val(Jesse Plemons)creates consternation for Quell by claiming that his father is improvising The Cause “as he goes along”.             At the risk of turning this into a rant, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that general audiences will probably not be prepared for the style of “The Master”. A couple of elderly women walked out of my showing during a scene featuring plentiful nudity, and I heard a decent smattering of grumbling as the credits rolled. Those expecting “There Will Be Blood-Part II” will be sorely disappointed. I’ll leave it at that. Now, for my Anderson groupies(count me as part of that crowd), you should be delighted. Joaquin Phoenix is extraordinary as Freddie Quell. And I don’t think I’ve invoked this term since witnessing Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005—this is Brando-level acting from Phoenix. Whatever ashes he’s risen from after that bearded stunt(?)phase from a couple of years ago, there is no question that Joaquin has come roaring back. It may be the performance of the year. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wonderfully charismatic as “the Master”, Lancaster Dodd. Although, usually appreciating him more for his smaller character work as opposed to his leading roles, he provides mesmerizing support and contrast to Phoenix’s live wire. Dodd is smooth and restrained in his manipulations—he has no trouble convincing you he would garner followers. And Amy Adams can be hit-or-miss with me, but she scores the bulls-eye here. Most prominently in scenes like the one where she castigates Quell, or another in which she “soothes” her husband in front of a bathroom mirror. This is a triumvirate of(forgive me)masterful acting. There is a lot of focus and metaphorical posturing in this film concerning a woman made of sand, and I think I know what Mr. Anderson is trying to signify with this. The full power of this symbolism didn’t hit me until the final scene of the movie, and I continued to ponder it on the drive home. “It all washes away” is something I can say(I think)without it being considered a spoiler. I haven’t read anyone else espousing this, but that’s a simplified version of what it represented to me. Freddy is trying to grasp something throughout his life, and is consistently coming up empty. Does he ultimately get a hold of something that finally gives him purchase? I have my theory, but you’ll have to attend to “The Master” and decide for yourself.          Grade:  A

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2 comments on “The Master

    • So pleased that you enjoyed the review! Thanks for commenting. I’ll tell you something I read about PSH’s acting in this, being that you wrote about trying to put your finger on what he does. When I was watching him in “The Master”, I remember thinking that his Lancaster Dodd was an awful lot like Charles Foster Kane. Then recently, I found an interview in which PSH said that he based a lot of his performance on Orson Welles! Seems like I nailed that one, at least. ML

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